IN the wake of the outgoing, affectionate, and even revolutionary pontificate of St. John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was cast under a long shadow when he assumed the throne of Peter. But what would soon mark the pontificate of Benedict XVI would not be his charisma or humor, his personality or vigor — indeed, he was quiet, serene, almost awkward in public. Rather, it would be his unswerving and pragmatic theology at a time when the Barque of Peter was being assailed from both within and without. It would be his lucid and prophetic perception of our times that seemed to clear the fog before the bow of this Great Ship; and it would be an orthodoxy that proved time and again, after 2000 years of often stormy waters, that the words of Jesus are an unshakeable promise:
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18)
Benedict’s papacy did not shake the world perhaps like his predecessor. Rather, his papacy will be remembered for the fact the world did not shake it.
In fact, the faithfulness and reliability of Cardinal Ratzinger were legendary by the time he became pope in 2005. I remember my wife bounding into the bedroom where I was still sleeping, waking me up with unexpected news that April morning: “Cardinal Ratzinger has just been elected Pope!” I turned my face into the pillow and wept for joy — an inexplicable joy that lasted for three days. The overwhelming feeling was that the Church was being given an extension of grace and protection. Indeed, we were treated to eight years of beautiful depth, evangelism and prophecy from Benedict XVI.
In 2006, I was invited to sing Song for Karol at the Vatican in celebration of John Paul II’s life. Benedict XVI was supposed to be in attendance, but his remarks regarding Islam rattled sabres around the world potentially putting his life in danger. He didn’t come. But that affair resulted in an unexpected encounter with Benedict XVI the very next day where I was able to place my song into his hands. His response suggested that he must have watched the evening’s celebration on closed-circuit television. How surreal and overwhelming to be in the presence of the successor to St. Peter… and yet, the unexpected exchange was thoroughly human (read A Day of Grace).
Moments before, I had watched as he entered the hall to the singing of pilgrims and, almost impervious to the rock star welcome, wandered up the aisle with an unforgettable humility and serenity — and that legendary awkwardness that spoke of a man more comfortable in between philosophical books than bubbling admirers. But his love and devotion for either has never been in question.
On February 10, 2013, however, I sat in stunned silence as I listened to Pope Benedict announce his resignation from the papacy. For the next two weeks, the Lord spoke an unusually strong and persistent “now word” in my heart (weeks before I’d hear the name Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio for the first time):
You are now entering into dangerous and confusing times.
That word has come true on so many levels, that I have written literally the equivalent of several books here in order to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters of a Great Storm that has been unleashed upon the entire world. But here again, the very words and teachings of Benedict have served as a lighthouse in the Storm, a sure prophetic beacon and anchor to the Now Word and countless other Catholic apostolates around the world (eg. Missing the Message… of a Papal Prophet and On the Eve).
The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: “You… strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Peter himself formulated this priority anew in his first Letter: “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses “to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. —Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to All the Bishops of the World, March 10, 2009; vatican.va
Still, even moments of profound gratitude, and grief, for such a faithful pope — or a future of uncertainty — should never undermine our faith in Jesus. It is He who builds the Church, “My church”, He said.
When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone: “flesh and blood” do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy; the powers of hell will not prevail against it… —Cardinal Ratzinger (POPE BENEDICT XVI), Called to Communion, Understanding the Church Today, Ignatius Press, p. 73-74
This was echoed in Benedict’s successor:
Many forces have tried, and still do, to destroy the Church, from without as well as within, but they themselves are destroyed and the Church remains alive and fruitful… She remains inexplicably solid… kingdoms, peoples, cultures, nations, ideologies, powers have passed, but the Church, founded on Christ, notwithstanding the many storms and our many sins, remains ever faithful to the deposit of faith shown in service; for the Church does not belong to popes, bishops, priests, nor the lay faithful; the Church in every moment belongs solely to Christ. —POPE FRANCIS, Homily, June 29th, 2015 www.americamagazine.org
I am certain that this is the enduring message that Benedict would have us cling to, no matter how stormy our days will become. Popes and parents, our children and spouses, our friends and familiarities will come and go… but Jesus is with me now, beside me, and that is as sure a promise as anything He said to Peter.
Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matt 28:20)
When my mother passed away several years ago, I was only 35, she was 62. The sudden feeling of being abandoned was palpable, disorienting. Perhaps some of you may feel this way today — a bit abandoned in Mother Church with the extinguishing of one of the century’s brightest flames. But here, too, Jesus responds:
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you… (Isaiah 49:15-16)
After all, Benedict XVI is not gone. He is nearer to us now than ever in the One, mystical Body of Christ.
We cannot hide the fact that
many threatening clouds are gathering on the horizon.
We must not, however, lose heart,
rather, we must keep the flame of hope
alive in our hearts…
—POPE BENEDICT XVI, Catholic News Agency,
January 15th, 2009
To journey with Mark in The Now Word,
click on the banner below to subscribe.
Your email will not be shared with anyone.
Now on Telegram. Click:
Follow Mark and the daily “signs of the times” on MeWe:
Listen on the following: